Culture and Etiquette in South Korea: An American Perspective

Culture and Etiquette in South Korea: An American Perspective

When moving to a new country, I think it’s best to try to learn to adapt to its cultural norms as swiftly as possible. While traveling, it’s always been important to me to learn how to say, “hello” and “thank you” in the country’s native language at the very least. I also find it important to read a bit on a country’s culture beforehand so I’m aware of anything that may be foreign to me, such as not tipping the server at a restaurant or making sure my shoulders are covered.

However, after spending a longer period of time in a country, one will begin to notice some of the stranger aspects of its culture. It might not always be easy to immediately adapt to these more significant parts of a culture, and can prove to be frustrating at times. However, it is possible.

Now that I’ve been living and working in South Korea for nearly two years, there are a few quirky customs, typical scenarios and unique habits that have become commonplace to me. It’s hard to believe these are all aspects of Korean culture and society that once seemed so foreign and/or goofy to me!

 

THE WILD

  • Stressful bus situations

While public transportation in Korea is pretty amazing, there is something to be said about the local bus system. Getting on a local bus can truly be a whirlwind experience leaving you wonder, “What just happened?”

The drivers maneuver their way through the busy traffic erratically, speeding through lights and turning sharp corners. All the while, these magicians still maintain their ability to get everyone where they need to be in a timely manner.

This is basically how I feel every time I'm on a local bus.

This is basically how I feel every time I’m on a local bus.

Exiting the vehicle is an entirely new experience within itself. As soon as a bus begins to slow down in the slightest, everyone will immediately stand up and crowd toward the exit toward the back of the bus.

The moment the bus doors open (often they open as the bus is still moving) and the bus comes to a complete stop, everyone shoves one another off. The time period of this situation in particular seems to be less than three seconds. Bus drivers often do not check to see if everyone has gotten off, so it’s best to follow the Koreans’ hectic routine and relax once your feet hit the pavement.

  • Shouting at servers

Back home in America, servers at restaurants have a tendency to be a bit too annoying. “How’s your food?” they’ll ask, as your mouth is full of the sandwich you’re chewing. “Can I get you anything else?”

Here in Korea, one thing I really appreciate is the fact that servers generally do a total of three things: ask what you want to eat, bring said food to you and stand at the check out register when you’re done and ready to pay.

If you need more water at any point during your meal, there are often water dispensers with cups for you do serve yourself. However, if you need something like a new beer, bottle of soju, or more side dishes, you have to call attention to your server. This is usually done by screaming, “CHO-GEE-YO!” which basically translates to “I’m over here.”

We may look tough, but as Americans we find it pretty uncomfortable to yell at restaurant employees.

We may look tough, but us Americans tend to feel pretty uncomfortable yelling at restaurant employees.

While I wouldn’t ever imagine doing something like this back in my home country, it is something that is completely normal in Korea and isn’t seen as disrespectful in any way, shape or form.

  • Pushing without apologizing

This is definitely something that I’ve grown accustomed to, but it doesn’t mean I agree with it. I’ve lived in big cities before, but not one that’s as densely populated as Seoul.

In Chicago, if the train was packed for the morning or evening commutes, people knew better than to shove themselves on. First of all, it’s incredibly uncomfortable for yourself as well as those around you. Second of all, almost always, another train will be on its way within the next two to three minutes.

Think any of these people moved out of the way when it was time for me to get off? Think again!

Think any of these people moved out of the way when it was time for me to get off? Think again!

However, in Korea, this is the normal. Not only do people not want to arrive late to their job, there is no sense of personal space whatsoever in this country. I’ve gotten used to being pushed and shoved on a regular basis, all of which go without apologizing. I’m embarrassed to say that I often have to push through the large crowds without saying anything, which I would never do back in America. Most of the time, I do say “Je-song-hamnida,” which is the formal way of saying “I’m sorry” in Korean because I just can’t feel good about pushing people otherwise.

THE WACKY

  • Plastic surgery

Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world. Yes, this tiny peninsula holds that title. I am currently living in a neighborhood called Apujeong in the Gangnam neighborhood, which is the epicenter of it all. I am constantly surrounded by the advertisements, hospitals and patients, so it’s definitely had to become something that I’m used to.

This woman is a very popular face that is seen advertised throughout Korea.

This woman is seen advertised throughout Korea in just about any type of public space.

Tourists and locals alike flock to surgical centers in Gangnam for a number of controversial procedures.

One of the most popular procedures is the infamous double eyelid surgery, in which a portion of an eyelid is removed to give the patient with smaller, “Asian” eyes a more “Westernized” look. In addition, people are drawn to the sometimes fatal, always controversial jaw reduction procedure, in which the patient has their cheek, jaw and chin bones shaved down to create a “perfect V shape.” They even have discounts if you go to these surgery centers with a friend! Now that’s my kind of deal!

  • The self-indulgence

Koreans are known for being….erm, a bit, vain. There are mirrors placed everywhere throughout public spaces, which are frequently used by men and women alike to ensure they look their best. Public bathrooms at train stations are often filled with young women doing their make up or taking photographs of themselves. Groups of people often sit in silence as they’re staring at themselves using their front-facing camera or taking selfies.

My kindergarten students last year. The toy's only purpose was to take photos using a front-facing camera.

My kindergarten students last year. The toy’s only purpose is to take photos using a front-facing camera.

A friend of mine recently went to a public pool and witnessed a group of women taking photos of themselves for hours without ever actually going into the water. They even had a costume change about halfway through their three-hour long photoshoot. But honestly though, if you don’t Instagram something, did it really even happen?

I participated in The Color Run 5k race here in Seoul, and didn’t see a single person actually running. Instead, most people were walking slowly taking photographs of themselves or finding spots in the grass to have photo sessions. It was bizarre and strange and I felt it to be something out of an Aldous Huxley novel. Though I’ve certainly taken a few photos of myself or with my friends using my front-facing camera, I’d like to believe I’m not this extreme. However, this is the normal in Korea!

I participated in The Color Run 5k this year in Korea and was let down when I discovered this is what most fellow participants were doing. I didn't actually see anyone running throughout the entire 5k.

I participated in The Color Run 5k this year in Korea and was let down when I discovered this is what most fellow participants were doing. I didn’t actually see anyone running throughout the entire 5k.

THE WONDERFUL

  • Bowing

One thing that I do on a regular basis without even realizing it is bowing to people. I walk into work as say hello to my Korean elders? I do a slight bow. I receive food at a restaurant? I say “thank you,” with a slight bow. I accidentally bump into somebody on the street? You guessed it: I do a slight bow and tell them I’m sorry.

Bowing to elders, strangers or just about anyone is a sign of respect in Korea. The bowing I do is considered pretty casual for Korean culture; it’s just more of a head nod so to speak.

I’ll never forget when I first moved to Korea and was introduced to the mothers of my kindergarten students. Upon greeting them, I reached out my hand for a handshake. They awkwardly bowed while shaking my hand and I felt slightly embarrassed. Fast forward to two years later, it feels fairly foreign to me to reach out my hand for a hand shake, despite the fact that’s what I was taught to do my entire life. While I find absolutely nothing wrong with handshaking, I’m just not used to it these days. With that said, I dig the bow and I think it’s great.

  • Sharing

One thing I really appreciate about Korean culture is the fact that everyone shares with one another. It’s typically considered rude for others to eat something in front of you without making sure everyone else has some, too. This is definitely something that is embraced back home, but not to the extent it is in Korea.

While hiking through the gorgeous mountains of Korea, I’ve been stopped by older Koreans on several occasions and asked if I wanted some fruit or small snacks. They love to see when foreigners do something they view as typically “Korean” (in this case, hiking) so they show their gratitude by sharing a slice of orange or an apple. I find it so endearing and it’s definitely something I will remember when I leave this country.

  • Removing my shoes

As I write this, I oddly feel very anxious about the thought of sitting on a couch wearing shoes, or walking around inside without taking off my shoes.

4496569-In-Korea-you-always-take-off-your-shoes-at-someone-s-house-0

Before moving here, I didn’t think twice about whether or not I was removing my shoes. I grew up in a house where sometimes we took them off, sometimes we didn’t. It wasn’t necessarily a rule, so to speak. However, in Korea it is a sign of respect to remove your shoes before entering someone else’s home. This scenario also pops up at certain restaurants.

At first, this concept was foreign to me, but as I mentioned, now I prefer to do it the Korean way.

So there you have it! These quirky cultural and societal differences may be a world different than what I was used to growing up, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Have you adopted any different habits while living abroad? I’d love to know!

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28 Comments

  1. August 17, 2015 / 2:46 pm

    When I was in Hong Kong I noticed that I kept bowing to people… and it’s not really a thing there. I definitely think the Korean restaurant system is more efficient and when I visited America last year I felt very impatient. Why do I have to wait for them to make the rounds? I just want them to come when needed and then disappear again. I love the little button so many Korean restaurants have. The US should get them as well.

  2. August 17, 2015 / 8:24 pm

    Interesting read! Korea shares a lot of similarities with Filipino Culture!

  3. August 18, 2015 / 8:12 am

    Love this! Singapore has some quirks with which I’m used to some, but some just piss me off still! AAGGGH!! I did a similar post but its not as pretty as yours! 😉

    http://www.jewelswandering.com

  4. August 18, 2015 / 10:44 am

    I would absolutely love to visit Korea some day. I love to travel!

  5. August 18, 2015 / 11:18 am

    I love, love, LOVE this post. I’ve been thinking of doing something similar myself. I often catch myself complaining a lot about Korean culture. To be honest, I can find a lot more things I despise than love… But it’s of course important to acknowledge the beautiful things, too. I love the bowing!

  6. August 18, 2015 / 1:23 pm

    Oh Korea! I love this post 🙂 It’s typical Korea and I can relate to all of it~ Some take aways though is the removing of shoes… I probably take that back home with me.

  7. August 19, 2015 / 11:53 am

    Love all the things you listed! it’s so true! I also find hierarchy very crazy here! Especially the realtionship between parents and children is very strange sometimes! Love your post! <3

  8. August 19, 2015 / 4:20 pm

    Oh wow! I have yet to visit Korea, but it certainly sounds like a must. Great post! Makes me a bit sad though, about the picture-taking. It’s kind of weird how the world has become so picture obsessed. There’s all these pictures about moments that probably mean nothing in retrospect, because the person was more focused on taking the picture than actually experiencing! Thanks for sharing!

  9. August 22, 2015 / 6:08 pm

    Wow … I just found an article which can provide many ideas for me, and I hope to write words the way you make in this post. Thank you for your hard work we can learn !

  10. August 23, 2015 / 6:33 pm

    I learned a lot from your site, despite language differences sometimes be an obstacle, but that sort of thing is not a reason not to learn. thanks for all the efforts you are doing to make this article and I hope you continue to do what is best for you and us all !

  11. August 24, 2015 / 1:59 pm

    This is an interesting take on the different characteristics of the locals. It’s sad that young kids are already so vain at such a young age. I mean in a country where plastic surgery is practically a normal thing it’s not that big a surprise, but still I’m sure it’ll cause a lot of problems for them in the future…

    Also your story about the 5k run is just weird. People weren’t running? Why even join a run then? That was just weird.

    The shoes part is something I like as well. Back in the Philippines we don’t take off our shoes before we go in the house so the house is always so dirty! It’s something I didn’t know I’d dislike until I lived in Korea lol.

    Awesome post. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • lauranalin88@gmail.com
      August 24, 2015 / 2:14 pm

      Yes – the 5k was by far and large the most surreal experience I’ve had here to date. It was very evident people signed up just to participate to get photos. It was 50,000 won too – for me, that’s a lot of money to pay to just sit in the grass and walk around with a selfie stick!

  12. August 24, 2015 / 8:23 pm

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  13. August 25, 2015 / 11:17 pm

    It took me forever to drop the bowing habit when I left Korea — that and giving things with both hands, particularly money. I really liked both aspects, and still give money with both hands!

    I’ve had something of an adverse reaction to the selfie craze, though! I avoid selfies when possible and — handy though they may be — will probably never have a selfie stick. It’s too much! haha

  14. August 28, 2015 / 9:40 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience in Korea. I’ll be visiting Hongkong next year but I’m intrigued in Korea when you shared your experience. Still weighing…

  15. September 1, 2015 / 11:17 am

    This was a fascinating post to read. I am adopted from Korea so I do not know as much about Korean culture as I would had I had grown up with Korean parents, but I do try to get my knowledge about Korea from other sources, which is one of the reasons I love travel blogs about Korea. Sadly, I have heard that Korea is quite vain and obsessed with plastic surgery, which is one of the sides of Korean culture I really am not the biggest fan of.

    Rae | Love from Berlin

    • lauranalin88@gmail.com
      September 1, 2015 / 12:29 pm

      Wow, I’m glad you came across this post! You’re totally right – the vanity and self obsession is something I have an extremely hard time wrapping my head around. In Korea, most everything is based on looks and success – which is also why there’s so much unnecessary pressure and high suicide rates among its residents. Despite this, I don’t regret moving here one bit, but I would be lying if I said I’m not eager for my next adventure. Korean culture, like any, has its darkness as well as its light. While some may be vain and self-absorbed, most Koreans I’ve met are incredibly kind and generous. The country itself is beautiful, too. If you ever have an opportunity to visit, I highly recommend it. Let me know if you’d like any more information!

  16. September 4, 2015 / 4:39 am

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  17. September 7, 2015 / 5:52 am

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  18. September 8, 2015 / 9:26 am

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  21. September 15, 2015 / 7:45 am

    Oh my gosh, the mirror thing is hilarious. My students will stare at their faces in the mirror, adjust their hair a little, put the mirror down, and then literally 4 minutes later do the same thing. How has anything changed in 4 minutes? Hahaha It makes me laugh. (Although, I’m guilty of checking my make-up more often these days now)

    Was that seriously the Color Run? A bunch of friends and I were thinking of doing that. Glad we kind of missed it haha.

    I do love the shoes thing. I went to the states in January to visit a couple of friends and found myself taking my shoes off at the door. It just felt rude to go traipsing through their house with shoes on. I do hope that’s a habit that’ll stick with me.

  22. October 26, 2015 / 12:12 am

    Oh my goodness that 5km run..there’s not a single person who wasn’t taking / participating in a selfie! What a let down

  23. December 9, 2015 / 3:16 am

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  24. Aurora
    December 29, 2015 / 8:03 pm

    I am contemplating or I WAS contemplating going to South Korea to teach English and your blog is the 1st thing I have read that puts fear in me! I do appreciate your honesty!

    • December 31, 2015 / 6:08 am

      I highly recommend teaching here. The culture is vastly different but it’s not a bad thing. It’s important to go into it with an open mind and attempt to embrace the weird, wild and wonderful. Don’t let this post discourage you!

  25. February 3, 2016 / 3:56 am

    Woh I enjoy your content , saved to bookmarks!

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